Wednesday, February 21, 2007

Celebrity Chefs

There's a creepiness and weirdness associated with the cult of the celebrity chef. In the last ten years, we went from having a small handful of national known chefs (most of those relegated to morning cooking shows on PBS anyway) to dozens of celebrated cooks. Add to that the number of regionally celebrated chefs and you have a widespread phenomenon.

I'll concern myself with the more localized phenomenon at this juncture.

You'll see it primarily in the SF Chronicle review, but it makes an appearance in most all newspaper restaurant reviews. The reviewer will use language that makes it sound like the chef him/herself is personally responsible for assembling and serving every single piece of food that comes out of the kitchen--that each creation is some sort of masterpiece on par with any novel, painting, play, or poem.

Except here's the thing, it's not.

We don't elevate every reasonably competent published writer to exalted status of celebrity author, but simply being a sous chef in a food-centric town is enough to get you some respect and a couple of handys every now and then.

So why is there so much mystique attached to what is just another craft? I think it comes down to equipment and laziness. Think of it in terms of a car mechanic. There are a lot of car repairs that any modestly handy person with a socket wrench, a manual, and several hours of free time can take care of yet we choose to turn that responsibility over to a "professional" at an exorbitant markup. We even pay high school dropouts to change our oil--a car maintenance task that doesn't even require a socket wrench. We're just that fucking lazy. Part 2 is equipment. Sometimes equipment is way too expensive to justify purchasing just to make one little repair to your car. We pay the mechanic a massive sum because he's the guy with the lift and sandblaster.

We pay high school dropouts to cook our food because we're too busy and too lazy to bother doing it ourselves and because they're the ones with the better ingredients, hotter stoves, and sharper knives. We're willing to part with currency in exchange for services.

Cooking is a craft and there's a reason so many dishes are so very similar. There are flavors that are tried and true, all that the cook does is not fuck up cooking it.

Sometimes the chef's hand is very apparent in a dish--that there's a deliberate attempt to do something new, different, or varied. And that's very cool. But 90% of items at 99% of restaurants isn't magic, it's just craft executed with varying degrees of competency.

That's not a bad thing. It's just a thing.

Sunday, February 18, 2007

Amateur Night

There's a phenomenon in the hospitality business called "Amateur Night." These are nights that for whatever reason seem to involve a disproportionate number of inexperienced diners or diners who are out of their element in a particular restaurant. Amateur night is bad for a number of reasons, the primary one is that the amateur night diner is typically more demanding and more likely to have unreasonable expectations while also spending less and tipping worse than a more seasoned diner.

The amateur diner will often only eat someplace if they can make a reservation, by doing so they have disqualified themselves from eating at some of the most compelling dining options in the area. The amateur diner also typically must eat between 7 and 8 on a Friday or a Saturday and then is shocked and/or confused when they find themselves in a loud, crowded restaurant and their food is taking longer than they think it should. The amateur diner becomes angry and/or disconsolate when they don't recognize anything on the menu, can't find a wine that they know, or aren't given their first choice of tables. The amateur goes out to eat when everyone else goes out to eat, and is more likely to find as much pleasure dining at Macaroni Grill as they would at Nopa.

So how do you avoid being an Amateur Night diner?

1. Know your restaurant. Research where you're dining in advance. Is this the place for you and your dining companions? Are you just going there because "you heard that it's good"? Most restaurants have websites with recent or representative menus (and prices). If not, check for reviews online (but take reviews from sites like citysearch and [especially] Yelp! with a metric tonne of salt. Also, don't go to a restaurant just to have one specific thing that you saw on their menu, that way you won't be disappointed if they're out of it or not serving it that night.

2. Do you really have to eat out on a Friday or a Saturday night? If you do, do you have to eat at 7:30? If you answered yes to both questions than you are an incurable amateur diner. Plan your evening differently--go out to eat at 5:30 or 6 and then continue your evening out with the theatre, drinks, or dessert elsewhere. Or, conversely, have a cocktail hour at home or at a nearby bar and then go have dinner at 8:30 of 9:00. Or hell, go see your movie first and then go eat at 10 o'clock! It's Saturday night! Where do you have to be the next morning? Hungover in the shower, that's where. Most restaurants in any city worth living in seat until at least 10PM, usually much later (especially on weekends).

3. Don't expect too much. People who dine out irregularly, especially people who go out for a "fancy" dinner only a few times a year, are expecting those meals to be absolutely transcendant or mind-blowing. The fact is, most of these people are going to be just as sated and pleased after a meal at your basic upscale casual-dining chain establishment as they are at the finest restaurants. Frequent dining out and cooking in is the key to understanding and appreciating the differences between restaurants, flavors, ingredient quality, etc. And the fact is a lot of expensive restaurants are doing the exact same thing as your local Chili's, only with better ingredients. And once again remember if you're eating at 7:30 or so on a Saturday, you're experiencing a restaurant at its busiest, which means food will take longer and the servers and bartenders will be busier than at virtually any other time during the week.

4. Be understanding. Know that, with very few exceptions, chefs, cooks, servers, bartenders, and managers are doing everything in their power to provide you with an optimum dining experience. If you're having to wait for food, a drink refill, etc. it's not due to laziness, incompetence, or mismanagement. It's because it's fucking busy. Also, if you've already exhibited some of the aforementioned signs of being an amateur diner, you've probably already been deprioritized (usually unconsciously) in the minds of the staff because the staff knows that, no matter what, you're going to tip a perfectly calculated to the penny 12-15% on an already sub-standard bill. Obviously you'll still get good service, but any extra attention that staff might be able to provide will go elsewhere.

And I do mean to sound bitchy and elitist, because all that I've said is true. I don't eat out often on Friday or Saturday nights when I am free for these reasons. Off-peak times, afternoons, and weeknights are the best times to eat out and have a truly good time.

Humans are creatures of habit, routine, and convention. Break out of it. Stay in and cook dinner on a Saturday night. Have people over for a party. Go out to that hot new tapas bar on a Wednesday. You'll be a better person for it.

HFF Returns Again: Maverick

There are a handful of restaurants that really hold my interest. Places to which I feel compelled to return. In some cases, like with Sophia, it's a case of really loving falafel and knowing that any falafel besides Sophia's is a pointless waste of calories. In other cases it's a combined respect for my perception of a restaurant's modus operandi and values (and food quality, naturally), places like Gregoire, Magnolia, Daimo, Lanesplitter, Solano Cellars....

But there's one restaurant that has stood apart from all the other places I've dined.... Apart from Zuni, Rivoli, Chez Panisse Cafe, Globe, Cav, Range, Cesar, Bouchon, Auberge de Soleil, Boonville Hotel, et al....

That place is Maverick, a tiny, funky neighborhood spot at 17th and Mission.

I went there for the first time shortly after they opened and enjoyed the food and loved the concept. Neo-American comfort food. In a similar vein to the "New American" that has since sprouted up all over the City, but with a consistency of focus. American food, (mostly) American wine from all over, and a crowded but comfortable space. The fried chicken comes with mashed potatoes, gravy, and greens. The fish (American staples like steelhead and monkfish) is always cooked perfectly. Maryland blue crab puffs. Cincinnati style risb with coleslaw. And the steak comes with fries and porter mustard sauce. Gourmet organic takes on classic American food without the froofy "twists" that characterize some other attempts at American classics.

Every now and then something falls flat (like the anger-inducing "hot" fudge sundae) but very rarely. But sometimes experimentation soars--like the frogs' legs "hot wings" and the whole bacon-wrapped trout stuffed with cauliflower. And Maverick's not afraid of combining big flavors together. On my most recent visit the steelhead was combined with cabbage, spiced apples, and chartenay carrots--accompaniments seemingly more appropriate for a pork chop than an anadromous trout--that slapped each other around on my plate and left the steelhead all the better for it.

There's a care and attentiveness on the part of the chef and manager (both 30ish guys, and the co-owners). On my first visit, the chef (Scott Youkilis) was working the floor to give Michael Pierce (wine-director/manager) a night off. On my most recent visit, Pierce advised our server that our wine (an excellent German riesling) was corked (it was) and, after a new bottle was provided he came back to decant it for us, which opened the wine up very nicely. Service in general has always been quite good, albeit idiosyncratic.

Other highlights from our most recent visit: the molasses-glazed pork shoulder with turnips, celery root, and potato dumplings was fabulous. The server provided a steak knife but a butter knife wasn't even needed--the tender meat pulled apart with the touch of a fork. Maverick continued to show a devotion to dense, flavorful salads without a lot of bulky greens. The ginger marinated beet and avocado salad with tatsoi and a blood orange vinaigrette was fabulous, as was the duck confit salad in a phyllo cup. A side of oven-roasted cauliflower and the Kentucky bourbon pecan pie rounded out our meal expertly. This most recent visit was the strongest showing by the kitchen in all my trips to Maverick, which is particularly remarkable because this was late on a very busy night (on Mondays Maverick offers 40% off all bottles of wine).

Maverick seems to be pushing itself forward even after being open for almost two years and the area is catching on and appreciating what Youkilis and Pierce are doing. Despite only decent initial reviews from the Chronicle and other Powers That Be, Maverick has shown that a quality product and quality cultivation of a customer base can achieve success that transcends one douche bag's opinion. Recent accolades include best weekend brunch from SF Weekly Readers' Poll and Best New Restaurant from SF Magazine's Readers' Poll--besting both Range and Mamacita.

Get to Maverick ASAP. Great concept. Great food. Great people. Young talented entrepreneurs making it work in San Francisco.

Sunday, February 11, 2007

HFF Hates: East Bay Express' Wineau Column

I've talked about this before. The East Bay Express' Wineau column. I haven't encountered a more worthless pile of shit in print since Percy Ross died. It's a column that nobody asked for and nobody needed.

It'd be one thing if it offered reviews of good hard to find value wines in the $10 price range. Instead, it reviews shit wines that are available at pretty much any place that sells alcohol. If it's available at Albertson's it doesn't need to be reviewed.

A quote: "A similar concept rendered somewhat less impressively comes from Beringer: the 2005 white Merlot ($4.50). Our first tip-off was the aroma, which evoked Sno-Cones. The taste was equally cloying. 'On ice, with Sprite, for Grandma,' said our Token Winemaker, complaining that the treacly cherry and strawberry flavors had not been adequately balanced with acid. I thought this one could be passable if served properly chilled with an appetizer that would offset the sweetness (think spicy Asian, like spring rolls or kimchi)."

If you're going to review $4.50 wines, don't bitch about it when they're uninteresting.

My point isn't to be a snob. That's not it. I've enjoyed many a wine that's sub $10 in price. In fact, they reviewed an excellent Borsao in one column that I drink semi-regularly. But to devote an entire column to wines that are not only trite but available anywhere? Why? Who is this helping?

There are so many better ways to do a value wine column than this pile of semi-liquid horse manure.

East Bay Express: focus your attentions on interesting, non-hangover-inducing, sub $10 wines that are hard to find, unusual, or, well, basically not fucking available at fucking Albertson's.

Tuesday, February 06, 2007

HFF Asks: Why?

There is a distinct group of diners (perhaps a majority) who never want to try anything new.

This is odd to me.

I rarely order the same thing twice. Not including basic cheap staples (pizza from Lanesplitter, various stuff from Daimo) the only thing that comes immediately to my mind that I order with any regularity is the mezze plate with falafel at Sophia. Why limit yourself to what you already know? That seems silly.

When I dine out, particularly when I'm spending significant money on dinner I want to try something different. Something that I haven't experienced before. More often than not I'm disappointed. You reach a point when know what certain things are going to taste like in general, all you're doing is judging execution. That's boring. It's like the technical competition versus the artistic competition in figure skating. Or another less gay analogy.

Correctly cooking food is the (often poorly-executed) baseline for a restaurant. You're supposed to not overcook food. That's a given.

Or another complaint: "I don't recognize any of these wines."

So? That's a good thing. If I see a varietal or region on a wine list that I'm not familiar with I'll make a point to order it. Or at least ask questions about it. A challenging wine list is a boon. I get pissed off when a wine list is made up of the usual suspects from France and California.

I had a customer inform me that "I know you want to be all boutique-y but it's really frustrating when you don't have any beers that I've heard of. And I drink a lot of different beers." Nevermind mind that our beer list includes Anchor Steam, Red Stripe, and Boont Amber (not to mention other beers from major California microbrews) but if you're somebody who drinks a lot of different beers wouldn't you want to find beers that you weren't familiar with?

What's the fucking harm? It's $4-$10 to try something new in your life. Cheaper than divorce. Hell, cheaper than a hooker. And just like a divorce or a hooker, trying something new in beer or wine will make you a more interesting person.